That -punk is Not Punk; Or, How You Can Have Something Called Mannerpunk


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Some people tried to lay down some bogus law to my buddy, Sarah Z., that dieselpunk had to be about machines, therefore her dieselpunk fantasy wasn’t dieselpunk. Uh, no. Not anywhere else I’ve seen it defined. (So I’m going to be quoting like crazy to establish that this isn’t my unique viewpoint.)

Terms like dieselpunk aren’t about how narrow a field they can be cut to, or what one small coterie wants to use as limits on their dieselpunk parties. Like steampunk, cyberpunk, stonepunk, and mannerpunk, dieselpunk is a sales guideline for writers selling to publishers or studios, or anyone selling to readers/players/viewers. It’s a way of signaling that over here you might find something you’d enjoy reading or viewing or playing, because it’s like other things you enjoyed with that label.

So squeaky-tight limits are not what it’s about. Rather, it’s a sales tool that must encompass everything that publishers, writers, artists, and consumers are calling “dieselpunk” without getting so vaguely connected that most of the audience would think the inclusion is nuts. It’s like “Science fiction is [or means] what we point to when we say it.” (paraphrase of Damon Knight, 1952) Or Norman Spinrad, 1974, “Science fiction is anything published as science fiction.”

So like all such sales tools, dieselpunk as a tag is subjective and historical, descriptive until it reaches so many inclusions that it can become prescriptive.

First: this never had anything to do with punk music. The term came out of the ranks of fantasy and science fiction writers.

Originally, there was cyberpunk, science fiction tales of the near future high technology heavy with anti-heroes and not so much dystopias as the world moderately screwed up as usual if you weren’t on top of the heap. (Term used since 1980.)

Then there came steampunk in 1987, as a term for F/SF set in the Victorian Age, or just before or after — steam age, really —  or in a kind of parallel Victorian Age, or in a world that Victorian F/SF writers might imagine. The word was purposely made as a playful poke at the then-popular “cyberpunk” term because it was retro, rather than futuristic. That’s the only reason “punk” is in these terms.

The interesting point of steampunk is that it encompassed both science fiction and fantasy — in fact, many of the first stories called steampunk were fantasy, or on that fun borderland of science fantasy. Hard science, not. Cyberpunk was always science fiction often pushed to the edge of science fantasy, but never near-future fantasy. (I hope you’re following the distinctions.)

Then there came an awareness of stories being dieselpunk, atompunk, radiopunk (that might be synonymous with dieselpunk or overlap the edges of steampunk and dieselpunk, which has resulted in it being not popular as a marketing term), mannerpunk, and stonepunk, not to mention gaslamp fantasy as an alternative to steampunk fantasy.

The important thing to note is that

*None of these are formulas.*
*None of these are templates.*
*None of these are plots.*

All they are, are settings or ambiances. They are genres, in the sense that all genres are merely marketing tags to clump entertainments with strongly common elements.

It’s like the setting of The Northern Thing, with its eternal medievalesque world, or of post-apocalyptic fiction, which doesn’t tell you if it’s going to be a quest, a mystery, or a romance, just sometime after a far-reaching disaster. (The earliest one I’ve found is After London; Or, Wild England, 1885)

All the -punks of F/SF are only about atmosphere and culture. Medievalesque does not have to be about quests, and dieselpunk doesn’t have to be about machines. Historical fiction is another setting genre like the -punks, in that you can set action/adventure, romance, thriller, domestic drama, or mystery plots in the historical settings.

See? Marketing tags.

It’s interesting that most dieselpunk shows up in art or motion media, rather than fiction, or else Sarah and I are having a ridiculously tough time finding it.

Part of this may be that some dieselpunk is being shuffled into historical fiction. Unless the spec is THIS BIG some marketers may refuse to notice it. It’s like no one ever points out that The Illusionist is steampunk, with unexplained 3D hologram technology better than we have, or that The Prestige is also, with — hello! — teleportation as a major item. Captain America: The First Avenger is pure dieselpunk for 99% of the film, but you’ll rarely see anyone marketing it that way (the fools). The first three Indiana Jones films are dieselpunk action/adventure fantasies, even if they didn’t set out to be that.

See, first a body of works has to be created by different people that have something in common. Then, someone has to notice that they share atmospheric elements and vaguely define what that is. Then someone has to come up with a genre name and then we argue long into the night about whether this work or that is in the genre or out.

As the nice folks at the Dieselpunks ( put it, dieselpunk  “… combines contemporary technology and sensibilities with the aesthetics and art styles that were prevalent during the Western interbellum period through to the end of World War II … In the realm of punk movements, dieselpunk is bookended by similar movements such as steampunk (based primarily upon the Scientific Romances of the Victorian era) and atompunk (a postmodern movement similar to dieselpunk that focuses on the aesthetics and art styles of the 1950s – early 1980s).”

You can also look up dieselpunk at Wikipedia, where they bizarrely list it as a subset of cyberpunk (???). The article on the -punks used to be much better.

Sarah and I got acquainted on the basis that we were working retro/historical fantasy in nearby eras. She was set up in the Black Belt of Chicago in the mid-1920s while I was in New York in 1934. Thanks to her influence, I wound up dropping that story back over the Prohibition borderline to 1931 to increase difficulties for the protagonist, and I have to do some heavy research for the Mark II draft, but it’s going to be the better for it. Mine is, by setting, a dieselpunk fantasy mystery series and, despite her other friends’ exclusionary view, hers is dieselpunk fantasy. It’s the setting that determines it, not concentrating on bizarro machines. Now, her friends may prefer dieselpunk stories that are about mad science, but that no more defines the field than someone’s fondness for medievalesque heroic fantasy is allowed to fence out all other forms of fantasy from being called fantasy. It’s just not going to fly with the public.

So I have developed a set of definitions for the -punks, for marketing use. In all cases, these may involve retro-futurism (the future as envisioned back then), secret histories (speccy things happened but kept secret, as in Sarah’s stories), alternate histories (speccy things that happened and changed history), or cultures, perhaps of future space colonies or with no real connection at all, that are closely modeled on the period that gives the ambiance.

Stonepunk: These Stories set in prehistoric times, or with a culture that is pre-metallic, even if other cultures are into later tech. This also includes stories set before known history, perhaps in now-sunken lands, when a higher tech is supposed to have existed. Examples: The Lost Continent (1899 novel & 1968 film); The Romance of Atlantis (1975); all of REH’s Conan and Kull stories.

Sandalpunk: Stories set in ancient cultures, whether Mesopotamian, Nilotic, or Classical, though some would limit this to Classical riffs and put the others in stonepunk. Not all that popular, which is why it’s nebulous. A.K.A. bronzepunk.

Medievalpunk is a rem for any retro-future that incorporates elements of a given medieval/renaissance aestethic or theme, with the complexity and knowledge of modern day. Earlier than steampunk and with no machines, except if wind, water, gravity, or hand powered.”* In here would fit all those Medievalesque High Fantasies, but also historical science fiction, like Poul Andersen’s The High Crusade. A very early medievalpunk example would be Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where the “modern day” is 1889. You see, this stuff was being done for ages: it just wasn’t given a name and put together with like items until the audience demanded it.

Clockpunk: set in the Renaissance, or in cultures like it, with the same half-mystical attitude toward science. If you attempts to transmute metals aren’t working, maybe you aren’t making enough charitable donations! The most powerful technologies are clockwork, waterwheels, and such. I would probably put a chronological limit of, oh, 1300-1786.  After all, the 1300s in Europe see the coming of gonnes and cannons. “Stories in the clockpunk vein are about alternate futures or histories where Renaissance-era devices are combined with high technology to create wonderful new confections.”** But we would have to put REH’s Solomon Kane stories here, too.
Steampunk: Shortest definition: Victorian, twisted. Actually, I would include the late Georgian Age in this, and some of the Edwardian, for reasons of sociology and history of technology too lengthy to include here. Let’s say 1786-1918. This period subsumes the Early Dreamers period of specfi. It includes both the rise of steam power and the establishment of electrical technology, from light bulbs and telephones to early radio. “In 1781 James Watt patented a steam engine that produced continuous rotative motion.”*

Neal Stephenson’s 1995 The Diamond Age is a perfect example of a steampunk world of the future, not a world as Verne would have imagined, but a society of neo-Victorian values, as well as neo-Confucists. Avram Davidson’s “What Strange Stars and Skies” can represent science fiction in a Victorian setting, and The Secret Log of Phileas Fogg (1973) by Farmer the secret history. “The word ‘steampunk’ was invented in 1987 as a jocular reference to some of the novels of Tim Powers, James P. Blaylock, and K. W. Jeter. When Gibson and Sterling entered the subgenre with their collaborative novel The Difference Engine the term was being used earnestly as well.”*

Dieselpunk: This genre is modeled on 1920-1945, though why they chose diesel as the marker technology I have no idea: “The engine was developed by German inventor Rudolf Diesel in 1893.”* It could better be called Decopunk after Art Deco that influences so much dieselpunk art: “Art Deco, or Deco, is an influential visual arts design style which first appeared in France in the 1920s, flourishing internationally in the 1930s and 1940s before its popularity waned after World War II.”* The term “Art Deco” actually wasn’t used until 1966: people just said something had modern styling. It rises out of a rectilinear Scottish school of geometric design which, merely on account of its dates, is often thrown in with the whiplash curvilinear of Art Nouveau. Notice the earlier dates here: “Between 1910 and 1913, Paris saw the construction of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, … another sign of the radical aesthetic change … of the time. The rigorous composition of its facade … is a major example of early Art Deco.”* Streamlining is first seen here: “A style related to Art Deco is Streamline Moderne (or Streamline) which emerged during the mid-1930s.”*


“First coined in 2001 as a marketing term by game designer Lewis Pollak to describe his role-playing game Children of the Sun, dieselpunk has grown to describe a distinct style of visual art, music, motion pictures, fiction, and engineering. Examples include Rocketeer, The Legend of Korra, Crimson Skies, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Dark City, Greed Corp, Gatling Gears, Iron Sky, the BioShock series,”* though I have not found a distinctive dieselpunk music, other than the likes of neo-swing.

Atompunk: From the first public use of atomic energy forward, or perhaps from the first set-up for atomic war by the USSR getting the technology. The limits that others see for it seems to end in the mid-80s as the USSR falls apart, so it might be considered marked by the Cold War ambience. “Atompunk relates to the pre-digital period of 1945-1965, including mid-century Modernism, the Atomic Age and Space Age, Communism and concern about it exaggerated as paranoia in the USA along with Neo-Soviet styling, underground cinema, Googie architecture, the Sputnik programme, superhero fiction, the rise of the US military/industrial powers and the fall-out of Chernobyl. Its aesthetic tends toward Populuxe and Raygun Gothic, which describe a retro-futuristic vision of the world. Examples include the Fallout series and Destroy All Humans!.”* With less Cold War emphasis, it might be called transistorpunk.

Mannerpunk: Were you waiting for this? Mannerpunk is any speccy story set in a culture with high levels of manner and etiquette, from tea parties to dueling. A classic example is The Phoenix Guards (1991) by Steven Brust, where there is a lot of punctilio about killing people, and enough rules of respect to make an epidemic of dueling. There are also books that might be described as “Jane Austen with High Elves,” so it’s used for a fantasy setting, too.

Concentrate on the ambiance, not the dates. If your story is in 1950, but there were no atom bombs and maybe WW2 is still going on, it’s more likely to be dieselpunk than atompunk.

Also, with the adoption of mannerpunk, it can obviously cross with the others, so you can have steampunk mannerpunk or clockwork mannerpunk.

So let’s remember these are marketing tags in the entertainment businesses and not try to make exclusive high-school cliques out of them.

* Wikipedia
** Annalee Newitz,

4 responses »

  1. Pingback: Quattro per Uno | strategie evolutive

  2. Pingback: A world of popular mechanics | Karavansara

  3. Though this is now more than a year after your pose, I wanted to compliment you on a very nice summary of the differing SF settings that have been characterized by the various “punk” references.

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